Jaime didn’t really expect things to go well when he rode north, but after all, they hadn’t been going well otherwise, so it wasn’t that much of a change. He felt mostly resigned about it, even as they finally pulled him out of the back of the cart and dragged him in front of the dragon queen and shoved him to his knees. He knew it was her even with the sack still tied over his head: “We found him alone, Your Grace, riding alongside the Green Fork, just off the Kingsroad,” the knight was saying pompously—Jaime hadn’t bothered to remember his name; some Riverlands lordling, hoping to climb the ladder now that the Freys had been wiped out. “I knew we’d do best to bring him to you.” Then the cunt pulled the sack off his head with a flourish to show her their catch.
Daenerys was sitting on a bowed chair, covered in furs. He tipped his head back and smiled up at her as offensively as he could manage. She didn’t bat an eye, of course. He wouldn’t have either, in her place. A smile wasn’t much of a weapon compared to an army and two dragons. He glanced around: they were inside a leathery tent, and there were five Dothraki warriors—all of them almost a head taller than he was; he really disliked those people—standing around the seat. Also, his arms were tied together painfully in the small of his back. Not very good prospects for a heroic rush. Anyway, what was the use? That wasn’t what he’d come for.
“Ser Jaime,” she said, cool as oceans. She surveyed him a little longer and then looked at the knight. “Thank you, Ser Morrilan. You have done me a service, and I will not forget. You and your men have ridden a long way to join us. Do you look to any lord?”
“We looked to Riverrun, but none there since Walder Frey went to his end, Your Grace,” Morrilan said.
“I have not recognized the unlawful seizure of Riverrun by the Lannisters and the Freys,” Daenerys said. “So you answer to Lord Edmure Tully, its rightful lord. We believe he is still a Lannister prisoner, and I hope we’ll have the chance to free him, someday soon. For now, make camp with the rest of the Tully forces, and inform Ser Davos you have joined us. He’s supervising the camp.”
Morrilan bowed, and she glanced at one of her servants; the woman stepped forward smiling and touched Morrilan’s arm and guided him out. Daenerys was saying something to one of the Dothraki; the man nodded and went out as well.
“I don’t suppose you’d consider cutting my arms loose?” Jaime asked her. “They tied it a little tight around the stump. I’d rather not lose more of it than I already have.”
She didn’t answer him, only kept on looking down at him with those clear eyes. She didn’t have much of her father in her face: the silver hair, nothing more. Jaime grimaced a little and glanced around the tent, wondering where they were: not Dragonstone, since he hadn’t been put on a boat, but that didn’t tell him much. Too cold to be much south of King’s Landing. Somewhere in the Riverlands? It was an odd choice: she couldn’t have been stupid enough to move all her forces north without some confirmation that Cersei was actually coming. Which she wasn’t going to get.
The tent flap lifted, letting in another gust of cold and a whirl of snowflakes. “You wanted me, Your Grace?” Tyrion said, and stopped short as Jaime looked around. He stared and then looked up at Daenerys.
“He was caught in the Riverlands, riding alone along the Kingsroad,” Daenerys said.
“Riding north?” When she nodded, Tyrion looked at him, a sidelong frown starting. “Out of curiosity, did Cersei perhaps forget to mention to you that she wasn’t actually sending her armies to help us?”
So they already knew. It wasn’t much of a surprise, actually. They’d have been idiots not to suspect. Yes, remarkable idiots. “And here I thought I’d just misplaced them,” Jaime said. “Where are we, by the way? I’ve spent most of the last two weeks with my head in a sack.”
“Roughly ten miles north of Moat Cailin, on the way north,” Tyrion said.
Now it was Jaime’s turn to eye Tyrion sidelong. “Did you misplace your army?”
“Do you think we should have waited?” Daenerys said. When he looked back at her, she raised an eyebrow. Her tone was sincerely curious.
“Well, you have put yourself in a somewhat precarious position,” Jaime said, warily.
“Very precarious,” she said. “I’ve lost all the territory I’d gained. We’ve had to abandon Casterly Rock. My remaining allies in Dorne and the Reach can’t help us, and are now vulnerable to attack by the mercenaries Cersei has hired. And Euron Greyjoy is already sinking half our supply ships. So what should I have done instead?”
He hesitated. She stood and came down the steps to loom over him. “Should I have stayed in the south?” she asked softly, her face still cool and untroubled, although there was a glint in her eye. “Should I have left the Warden of the North to face the dead without me, just because your sister’s a selfish, murderous liar who’ll say anything, do anything, condemn thousands upon thousands to die, just to hold on to power for one more minute? Do you think it was a surprise to find that she’d betrayed us? The surprise would have been anything else.”
Jaime swallowed and didn’t say anything. It wasn’t as though he could argue. But agreeing with her when he was on his knees at her feet would have been pathetic.
“I admit she’s being very clever,” Daenerys added. “The Greyjoys aren’t sinking all our ships. Only about half of them. I think she might have some doubts whether her mercenaries from Essos will keep on fighting for her sake once they see an army of corpses coming at them. So she does want us to stop the army of the dead. She just wants us to starve and die while we’re doing it. And she may get her wish.” Daenerys smiled briefly, without mirth. “But I’m not your sister. And I won’t see the world burn just so I can rule the ashes.”
“If you’ll forgive my saying so, I seem to recall you have done rather a lot of burning,” Jaime said, the best defiance he could muster.
“To destroy your army, yes,” Daenerys said. “After you sacked Highgarden and murdered Lady Olenna, who had bent the knee to me. After you took Yara Greyjoy and Ellaria of Dorne. I don’t like to think what’s been done to them. I’m sure it’s more than earned my vengeance on their behalf. But even that was only before I’d seen what we’re facing. And now that I have—I’m here. ” She tilted her head. “If I’ve explained myself well enough, will you return the courtesy? Why are you here, Ser Jaime? It seems a strange kind of trick.”
He looked away. “I made a pledge,” he said shortly.
“To do what, exactly?” Tyrion demanded, coming round to stand beside her. “To ride north alone like a madman and throw yourself into the hands of your mortal enemies?”
Jaime gave Tyrion his best wounded look. “Is that what we are, now?”
He got paid back an equal measure of exasperation. “Not me, you idiot.” Tyrion darted a glance over at Daenerys, though, and didn’t say anything about her. “Besides, you didn’t know we were here. I doubt the Starks would even bother asking why you’d shown up in the North before they cut off your head.”
“Lucky me, I’ve fallen into your hands first,” Jaime said.
“Yes, lucky you,” Tyrion said dryly. “So why are you here? Really.”
“I told you.”
Tyrion sighed. “Yes, this pledge. Oddly, I don’t remember it. In fact, I don’t believe I heard from you at all, at the summit. Cersei did the talking. Who did you make it to, exactly?”
Jaime pressed his mouth tight. “To Brienne of Tarth,” he said, after a moment.
“Brienne of Tarth?” Tyrion said, as if he were tasting the name to see if he recognized it. “Wait. Do you mean that absolutely terrifying woman who serves Sansa Stark?”
Well, it wasn’t an inaccurate description. “That would be her,” Jaime said.
Tyrion was eyeing him with a deeply skeptical expression, but after a moment he turned to Daenerys. “She’s at Winterfell. I could send a raven.”
Daenerys kept looking down at Jaime a moment longer, and then she turned away. “No,” she said. “We’ll go to them. I think the Starks have a right to be present for his trial.”
Tyrion stiffened and looked at him, his face sliding bleak. “His trial?”
“For killing his king,” Daenerys said. “It’s overdue.”
Jaime figured it would be another week to Winterfell. “Could we skip the sack over my head this time, do you think?” he asked Tyrion, when the Dothraki dragged him out of his not-very-comfortable tent the next morning. At least they’d tied his hands in front of him now.
“I’m not sure you wouldn’t rather have it, actually,” Tyrion said, with an odd note of tension in his voice as they reached the crest of the hill—that stopped seeming odd as the dragon came into view. Daenerys was down in the valley, stroking its head. Jaime involuntarily pulled up until the Dothraki at his back shoved him down the slope, and he had to work at it reasonably hard not to let his face go completely horrified when they drew near and the dragon actually snaked out its massive head and tipped it to one side to look him over much too closely with a gleaming red eye. It rumbled a strange hissing breath.
“Drogon remembers you,” Daenerys said. Jaime managed to drag his eyes away from the teeth—it wasn’t his imagination, they’d gotten bigger since the last time. She was smiling a little, a slightly malicious bit of amusement. “He doesn’t get to see many faces. Most men don’t ride at him.”
“Well, I do like to be memorable,” Jaime said. Which was true, although in this one particular instance he’d privately felt he’d have been happy to blend into the crowd just a little more than usual.
She turned and climbed aboard, and then Tyrion, staring up after her, took a deep fortifying breath and started to follow, and Jaime abruptly realized they were getting on the dragon. He leaned forward and hissed, “Is it…going to let us?” somewhere between fascinated and appalled.
“We’re about to find out,” Tyrion muttered back. He darted a look over at the dragon’s head and then very slowly and carefully put his foot on the wing-arm. He looked again, but the dragon just kept watching him, and with another deep breath, he clambered the rest of the way up.
Jaime looked at the dragon. It looked back at him, and then he would have sworn the monster smirked at him, as if it knew exactly how wobbly his stomach felt. He glared back at it narrow-eyed, and then he gritted his teeth and exercised the full limits of his vanity and straightened his shoulders before he climbed up to the spiny neck and sat down behind Tyrion, keeping his back tourney-rigid. But he’d barely got a grip on one convenient spike when they were moving, an awkward galumphing sort of movement that jolted all his teeth together for the span of ten strides, and then abruptly the earth fell away, just gone from beneath them. The wind was howling in his face and they were tilting wildly, trees wheeling beneath them, and part of him wanted to scream like a terrified child and part of him wanted to yell with joy as they went blazing up over the crest of the hill.
Beneath them the Dothraki raised weapons and howled wild cheers: a vast beetle-swarm of them covering the Kingsroad that he could see from one end to the other: looking out on legions from the top of some impossible tower. Tyrion was sitting in front of him clutching the spines with his eyes squeezed shut and his entire face clenched into a bared-teeth knot, but Jaime kept staring helplessly over the side; he couldn’t get his breath and he felt as if he’d fall with every single instant, but he couldn’t stop watching.
The dragon roared an answer beneath him, the terrible furred shrieking noise he’d heard in his dreams ever since the Goldroad, only now the sound was also reverberating through his body from beneath the hide. When he leaned forward and put his shaking hand flat against the warm scales, it shuddered up his arm and all the way to his teeth, and he imagined he could feel the rhythm of some engine moving it, or maybe some vast bellows rising and falling within. There were tears being whipped from his eyes like the air being whipped out of his mouth before he could breathe, and he was dizzy and sick to his stomach, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he’d have refused the bargain if someone had asked him whether he’d trade his life for this one single ride.
Well, at least no one had asked him.
He hadn’t gotten remotely used to the experience by the time they landed at Winterfell. That only took four hours: a week’s worth of ground, devoured before dinnertime. He’d spent longer on occasion getting from the Red Keep to the port at King’s Landing and back, if the streets were crowded. His legs were as wobbly as leaves when he climbed down, his whole body trembling, and he kept leaning against the dragon’s side afterwards not to demonstrate how insouciant he now was about riding dragons, but because he was reasonably sure he’d just have fallen down otherwise.
There was a small welcoming party waiting to greet them, and that twit Snow came forward right up to the dragon and looked up at it smiling. “Hello, Drogon,” he said softly, even when the beast nosed right towards him. An insufferable showing-off, really. Then he stepped forward and held his hand up to help Daenerys climb down with a glassy besotted look that made it clear just why he felt safe around her very large pet. Jaime rolled his eyes. Yes, he was sure it had taken an enormous amount of work on her part to get the King in the North to bend the knee. She’d probably just had to figure out what surface to sit on to put her cunt at the right level.
And then he turned and froze, because Brienne was standing on the hill staring right at him with a stricken expression. He stared up at her and swallowed hard, and then she glanced sideways and he followed the look—to her left, where Sansa and Arya Stark both stood on either side of a chair—a wheeled chair with Brandon Stark sitting in it, all three of them looking down at him, faces cold and set, like figures gazing in judgement from the walls of a sept.
“As I recall,” Brienne said through her teeth, “you said, ‘I’ll see you in the North.’”
He made a small shrug of his shoulders. “And so you have.” He tried to smile up at her. She kept glaring. They’d put him in what looked like a recently emptied storeroom somewhere on the ground floor, the small windows high on the wall open to the bitter cold outside and showing only a thin slice of grey sky. There were a few scattered spills of barley left on the floor, and every so often a small and determined mouse came out of the wall and staged a glorious raid to retrieve a few grains, despite the obviously terrifying threat of his bound presence.
“How exactly is that a pledge?”
He sighed. “Would you have stayed in King’s Landing?”
She hesitated, and he grimaced, already knowing it was going to hurt, and she’d say it anyway, because it was the truth; then she did, she said, helplessly, “I wouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
“No,” he said. “You wouldn’t have.” It came out thin and bitter, pathetic really, and he couldn’t meet her eyes. Because it was true; she wouldn’t have been there. She wouldn’t have said yes, that first time: Cersei looking up at him with her hand on his cheek, golden and beautiful, so much more beautiful than any other woman he’d ever seen, the other half of him with all the memory of pleasure he had in the world wrapped up in her perfumed arms, saying, join the Kingsguard and we can be together again, Jaime, nothing else matters. Brienne wouldn’t have let herself be pulled down into a kiss with that promise, with those words. And she wouldn’t have said yes that night Cersei had come to him, two days after she’d been married to the king, and kissed him savagely and told him I’m yours, I don’t care what the world wants, what right do they have; I want you and you want me and we’ll take what we want no matter what; Brienne wouldn’t have said yes to that, wouldn’t have opened her bed and her arms and made her lover into a whore and her children into secret bastards. So she’d never have had to murder a ten year old child to save their lives, she’d never have had to murder the man who’d given them his name, she’d never, ever, have been there in the first place, but he had; he’d been there in the first place, and he’d stayed, he’d stayed for all of it, so it was perfectly reasonable for everyone to ask him why he’d left now, what had made him go now—
He’d shut his eyes, but the straps of Brienne’s armor creaked, edges of metal scraping as she folded herself down and sat next to him, against the wall. Their arms were touching, shoulder to elbow, pressed lightly together. Even through armor and leather and cloth, it was warmer than any other part of him. The stone walls had leached all the heat from his body. “The truth is,” he said, and his voice sounded faint even to his own ears, “even…even after everything…I believed her.” He gave a small gasp of a laugh. “I think I might have been the only one. Tyrion didn’t. Your queen didn’t. Did you?”
He glanced at her. Brienne didn’t look up from the ground, only shook her head a little. He nodded and turned his face forward again. “Well. I did. So much that I went back to the castle, called together my officers, started giving them orders for the march north…” He trailed off. It was a few moments before he went on. “And then she came and sent them away and told me I was a fool. And I was, of course; I was a fool. I don’t have any excuse. But excuse or not, I’d really believed her, so you see—I was already fighting it in my head. The Great War. The White Walkers, the dead men, the ice spiders, every legend of monsters come to life, and…and I was…”
“I understand,” Brienne said, and he stopped talking, because he knew she did. She was here to fight the monsters and save the world, too. As any true knight living would be. Or even a damp, rusty excuse for one.
“Do you think Daenerys will insist on executing me?” he asked, after a moment. “If it would make a difference, it’s not as though I’m going to last particularly long in the field. I’m really not very good with my left hand.”
“I don’t know,” Brienne said, very softly.
“I suppose she has to. Her right to the throne comes through her father, and I killed him. There’s really no way she can let me live without undermining her claim. I’m surprised she’s going to hold a trial at all. It seems a bit pointless to debate my guilt when I’ve spent the last twenty years going around being called Kingslayer by the entire country.” It was turning into nervous babble, so he stopped and looked down at his hands and asked only, “When?”
“In the morning.”
He nodded a little. He didn’t start talking again. Brienne didn’t say anything, either. She only sat with him, in silence, and kept the vigil by his side.
He stirred the next morning grimacing and lifted his head out of Brienne’s lap where he’d tipped over. She’d had her hand resting on the crown of his head; he still felt the warmth, a fading memory of comfort. She was raising her head from where she’d leaned it back against the wall and closed her eyes. There wasn’t any real light coming in the windows; the sky had only gone slightly paler grey. But there was a grinding in the lock, and the door swung open. Tyrion was on the other side, his face turned down and sad, with two big Stark soldiers behind him. Brienne took one of Jaime’s bound arms and helped him lever himself onto his feet as they came in. He made himself smile at her as they took him by the arms and led him out. From the look on her face, it didn’t do much good.
The old great hall was considerably more bare than he remembered it. There were only a few candles in the hanging frames, and all the fireplaces were dark and cold. There were only two braziers up at the head of the room, on either side of the steps going up to a heavy stone chair. Daenerys was sitting in it, dressed all in black, with Snow standing at her left side and Sansa and Bran seated to her right. The room was full on both sides with hard faces. Not just Northmen: he recognized faces in passing of southern knights, men from the stormlands and the Reach, even a few Dornish in among the mix. A decent sampling of everyone his family had mauled on their way to the throne.
The guards brought him towards the throne and left him there—standing, at least—before the queen. He kept his eyes on her, even as Brienne silently came and took her own place behind Sansa’s chair, standing next to Arya.
“Ser Jaime Lannister,” Daenerys said, her voice clear and carrying, “knight of the Kingsguard—”
“Not anymore, actually,” he put in, almost a reflex. It was stupid to prod her, of course, but on the other hand, what was the point of dying any way other than he’d lived? In any case, she clearly wanted to make theater out of him, and he didn’t see why he’d let her have it all on her own terms.
“Oh?” She had a way of shifting her body that made a sharp question out of the slightest movements of head and lift of eyebrow. “Who has the power to dismiss a man from the Kingsguard?”
He gave her the answer she wanted. “The king.”
She smiled, wintry. “The rightful king. Or queen, in this case. So you have not been dismissed.”
“I’m sorry I left the cloak and the armor behind, then,” Jaime said lightly.
“Armor doesn’t make a man a member of the Kingsguard,” Daenerys said. “Neither does a white cloak. An oath does. An oath you broke very thoroughly when you murdered the king to whom you’d sworn that oath.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“The facts of your crime aren’t in dispute, so far as I know. But just to be clear. You are accused of having broken your oath as Kingsguard and having murdered your king, my father, Aerys Targareyn, second of his name, in his throne room, by stabbing him in the back and then cutting his throat. While he was unarmed and undefended. Did you do it?”
He wanted to keep smiling, he meant to, and he couldn’t quite manage it. He’d spent most of his life working aggressively at inappropriate levity; he’d managed to smirk at the mother of the child he’d tried to murder while waist-deep in his own shit, and now when he most needed it, in the middle of this ridiculous farce, there was a weight dragging at the corners of his mouth. She had the look of it down, was the thing; she looked like—a Targareyn queen, straight out of Old Valyria; like the painting of Aegon’s sisters that had burned in the sack of the Red Keep. And there she stood trying to make her father sound like a poor, helpless old man, betrayed in his hour of need. It made him too angry. He tried to keep the smile there, but it wavered in and out on his mouth. “I did, as it happens,” he said. “Just to be clear.”
She nodded. “Before his death, my father also countenanced the abduction of Lyanna Stark by his son, my brother Rhaegar Targareyn. He unjustly executed Lord Rickard Stark and his son and heir, Ser Brandon Stark, when they protested Rhaegar’s actions. In fact, he unjustly murdered many innocent people, and with great cruelty, by burning them alive.” Jaime stared at her, taken aback, and then she asked, “You were a member of the Kingsguard when my father committed many of these acts, were you not, Ser Jaime?”
“I was,” he said, slowly. He darted a glance involuntarily towards Tyrion, but he didn’t get anything back: Tyrion had his hands clenched at his sides and was studying the ground.
“Were you yourself present on the occasion of the murder of the Starks?”
“Did you know it was unjust?”
It was starting to feel strangely like someone had his chest in a vise and was tightening it down, one turn of the wheel at a time. “I did.”
“And yet at that time, you did not act,” Daenerys said “You stood by. Is that not so?”
His mouth moved a little before he could say it. “Yes.” His voice sounded squeezed thin. He didn’t understand what she was doing. It was—some sort of game.
Daenerys nodded. “Ser Jaime, I don’t ask you why you struck down the king. I know why my father was overthrown, why he was killed. I know that he was an evil man and a bad king. What I ask you is—why then? Why not before?”
He couldn’t answer her. After waiting a moment, she added, “It must be said that you were not the only one who stood by. So did many other brave and respected knights of the Kingsguard, including Ser Barristan Selmy, whom I took into my own Queensguard, and who died bravely in my service in Essos, fulfilling his oath.” Jaime flinched involuntarily; it was the flick of a lash across his back. “But they did so because they, like you, had sworn a sacred oath to protect and obey the king. An oath which you alone of them broke. But you broke it only with the safety of your father’s army at the gates of the Red Keep. At the very moment when one of his knights was raping and murdering Princess Elia and her children. You might have been guarding them, if you felt my father did not deserve protection. Instead you stayed with him until he was defenseless—and then you murdered him.” She gave a small lift of her shoulders. “Why then, Ser Jaime? When you had stood by, so many other times. Was it only for lack of courage?”
The vise was squeezing hard. He wanted to tell her; he wanted to spit the answer in her face, in all their faces. But surely she knew. If she wanted to know, she knew already; Tyrion would have told her. And she would have wanted to know before she asked him in open court. So she was doing it on purpose, opening the door for him to say it out loud, to tell all of them about the wildfire. Why? He had to—he had to think; he didn’t want to be a fool yet again, for yet another queen. Because—because Cersei had used the wildfire, afterwards. Daenerys only wanted to make him condemn his sister, with his own mouth, for Aerys’ crime.
“Does it really matter?” he said, forcing the words through his teeth. “Who can remember the gory details after all these years?”
Daenerys lifted an eyebrow, and Tyrion visibly took a breath and flicked a glance up at him, a hint of exasperation. What, Jaime wanted to ask him, was he not playing his part adequately? He put up his chin in defiance, and didn’t look at Brienne, and then out of nowhere, Brandon Stark said, “Burn them all.”
Jaime jerked his head around. The boy was sitting in his chair; he’d tilted his chin up a little, his eyes aimed up at a dark corner of the ceiling, filmed over white as milk. Jaime looked wildly at Tyrion—had he told Bran?—but Tyrion looked as shocked as he felt, and he was turning towards Daenerys himself, passing the question along—but even she had turned her head to stare at the Stark boy.
Jaime looked back and found Bran staring at him directly with those white eyes. “You were at the foot of the steps,” the boy said. “I can’t hold the Keep, Your Grace. If you don’t let me surrender, they’ll storm the gates and there will be a thousand battle-mad men pouring into the halls. They’ll kill you, they’ll kill Elia, they’ll kill the children. You have to let me offer surrender, please,” and there was a wave of bile climbing Jaime’s throat, because Tyrion hadn’t told Bran that; no one had. He couldn’t have told anyone. He hadn’t remembered the words himself, even though they rang in his head, familiar. “But the king just kept muttering. Burn them all, he said. Burn them all. He was saying it to himself, over and over. Your Grace!” his voice rose, Jaime’s voice rising in his own ears. “We have to surrender.”
The whole hall was silent. Jaime couldn’t breathe. He was there, again; the throne towering above him, Aerys hunched inside it, silver head like Daenerys’s bent over his claw-curled hands, lips moving ceaselessly. In the distance, the slow-fading thunder of the trebuchets pounding the walls, one impact after another vibrating through the flagstones.
“You climbed a few steps up to try and get his attention. Then the king looked at you,” Bran said. “Go to your father, he said. Go to my Hand. You were so glad. I’ll insist on honorable treatment, you said. The Stark forces are at the gates too. I’ll surrender to whichever one agrees first. But that wasn’t what Aerys meant. He said, Go to your father, Lannister. His soldiers will let you through. Go to your father, the traitor, and bring me his head.”
The words echoed in his ears, doubled. Tyrion was looking at him, and he had his mouth pressed into a hard tight line, tears standing bright in his eyes. Jaime had no idea why; he didn’t know why Tyrion looked like that. He had hated their father.
“The pyromancer was standing on the podium.” Bran’s voice went on, steady, astonishingly steady, as if it wasn’t all happening, all over again; as if he wasn’t there. “Aerys called him forward. Burn them all, Aerys said. All the traitors together, all at once. Fire the city. Fire the keep. Let them all burn. There were barrels everywhere. Under the whole city. You’d seen them. The king liked to walk in the tunnels, and he made you stay with him. He liked the green light. It felt good to his eyes. He’d walk all night, all the way to the grate that looked out into the port, under Fleabottom, and then he’d turn and walk back. There were barrels the whole way. Burn them all, he said. The pyromancer would have done it. He was the one who had burned the Starks, so he knew they would execute him, but that wasn’t why. He just loved fire. He loved the idea of the city burning. Just like the king. Yes, Your Grace, he said. He turned and came down the stairs.”
The words kept coming, but Jaime didn’t hear them. Rossart was coming down the stairs towards him, his eyes glassy with a kind of fervent, grotesque lust; sweat broken out on his forehead and his lip. Half his face was shiny, burned scar tissue; three of his fingers on his left hand were slagged to the last knuckle. Jaime reached out and caught him by the throat. He wasn’t a big man. He was old, and wizened, and his neck felt as fragile as a branch three winters dead.
“You broke his neck and let him fall,” Bran said. “And then you went up the stairs. You were drawing your sword. Aerys got up and turned to run. He was still saying it. Burn them all. Burn them all. You stabbed him before he could get away. He fell to the ground. The blood started to pool beneath him. It was staining his lips. Burn them all, he kept saying. Burn them all. He always said them. Burn them. As if he thought everyone else would burn, and he wouldn’t. You couldn’t bear it anymore. So you slit his throat to stop him saying it.”
Bran stopped too, then. He closed his eyes in the silence, and after a moment, he opened them again, gone back to a lie of brown and ordinary. Jaime gasped for breath, and it came in a shudder. His face was wet, dripping. The room swam around him, a blurred mess of eyes staring, hands covering mouths, horror. No one spoke. His own gulps for air were the only sound he could hear. Brienne was looking at him, her face so full of sorrow he couldn’t bear to look back.
“He was wrong,” Daenerys said. Jaime looked up at her, slowly, trying to make sense of—words, at all. Her own face had gone pale, and her mouth was turned down, the serene line of her smile broken. She stood up from the chair, looking at him, and came down the steps; she stopped only one up, facing him. And then she turned to the brazier next to her, and she reached her hand into it and picked up one of the burning coals.
Jon Snow gave a gasp and started towards her; Tyrion flinched forward, his eyes widening; a murmur went down the hall, people recoiling. Jaime just stood and stared in blank horror as she brought her hand back out with the coal. She hadn’t flinched. Her glove was smoking—even as she raised it, the fabric was erupting into open flames; the sleeve of her gown had caught and was going up too, burning to where a torque of metal held it clasped around her upper arm, the cloth falling off in burning scraps—and leaving behind only smudges of soot; she was still holding the coal, glowing live from between the pale fingers of her unmarred hand, smoke trailing up from between them.
She never looked away from him. “My father was wrong,” she said. “He would have burned. For a dragon is always a Targareyn. But not all Targareyns are dragons. And the others go mad…for wanting to be.”
She turned, and put the coal back into the brazier, and climbed the steps back to her throne. She turned and sat down: one bare hand, one still gloved, on the stone arms. “Many of you here suffered because of my father’s madness,” she said, raising her head high and speaking to the hall. “Some of you were his victims yourselves. Others of you were their kin and their friends. All of you, all who live in Westeros, have suffered through the wars brought on by it. And I swear to all of you, here and now, that it will not happen again.
“When I have retaken the Iron Throne, it will be reforged. A compartment will be made beneath the seat. And no king or queen of Westeros will ever again be crowned except when that compartment is full of live and burning coals, and the throne is so hot that water will boil off the metal. And if there is no Targareyn who can take it, Aegon’s throne will stay vacant, and rule of Westeros will remain in the hands of the small council and the lords paramount of the Seven Kingdoms, until the next dragon arises to claim the throne. This is the justice I offer to all of you, in payment of my father’s crimes.”
She turned to look down at Jaime. “And Ser Jaime Lannister,” she said, “here is my justice for you. You did break your oath as a Kingsguard. There is no way to deny that, or to repair it, no matter the reason. You slew your king. I do therefore dismiss you from the Kingsguard.”
It wasn’t anything he hadn’t expected. It wasn’t even—important. He’d been dismissed the Kingsguard more than two years now, and he’d spent most of the last twenty cuckolding the king he was supposed to be serving. It should have been trivial, a joke. And yet he had to look down; he felt his throat work, as if he wanted to sob; as if he wanted to kneel and beg her not to.
“But you broke that oath only when you had to do so in order to stop that king, my father, from committing an atrocity as monstrous as the ones we have all gathered here in the north to stop: a crime beyond the right of any king to order, and the duty of any defender of the realm to prevent,” Daenerys said. “And in thanks for that act, I hereby pardon you for your rebellion against my line, and confirm you as Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West. If,” she added, as he raised his head to stare at her, “you will bend the knee, and accept that charge from my hands as your queen.”
Jaime looked stricken over at Tyrion, who smiled at him a little, wet-eyed, and inclined his head a little: go on, and after a moment he took a step forward to the foot of the stairs, and knelt with his bound hands in front of him.
He—didn’t really know what to do with himself, afterwards. They’d given him a guest chamber, grandiosely furnished with a bed and a window, and he sat on the one and looked out of the other. The entire view was snow and more snow, and for some leavening, snow, but it was a significant improvement over the inside of a sack, so he wasn’t inclined to complain. He only looked away from it, a little blankly, when the door opened: Tyrion, carrying a jug of wine and two glasses. He paused in the doorway, looked at Jaime assessingly, and then came in without being asked, put the glasses on the windowsill, filled them just precisely short of the brim, and then picked one up and carried it over and put it in his hand. It was terrible wine, only a few shades shy of vinegar, but Jaime drank the entire thing down in four swallows. By the time he’d done, Tyrion had brought over the second one, also full, and traded it with him.
“I would have thought she’d make you Lord Paramount,” Jaime said, staring into the second glass as Tyrion refilled the other for himself.
“I’m her Hand,” Tyrion said, pulling himself up onto the bed to sit down beside him. “If I’m doing it right, I won’t have much time to spend at Casterly Rock. Anyway, it would be rather inappropriate, don’t you think? I did murder our father, after all. The crime should not profit the criminal. It’s a fairly core principle of jurisprudence.”
“What about my current position, then?” Jaime asked, squinting at him.
“Hm. Not really the same thing. You got kicked out of the Kingsguard for committing your crime,” Tyrion said. “You were named Lord Paramount for your heroism. The fact that the two were encompassed by the same act is merely coincidental.”
Jaime gave a helpless stutter of laughter, looking down. “Tyrion, what exactly does she expect me to do as Warden of the West? The Lannister armies aren’t going to suddenly desert Cersei and march to my banner.”
“I suppose you don’t know that until you try it,” Tyrion said, raising an eyebrow at him. Jaime flinched, looking away. Objecting to the idea was absurd, if not insane. He’d walked away from Cersei already. He’d come north. And now he’d bent the knee, he’d let Daenerys Targareyn name him Warden of the West. But—raising the lion banner, calling the Lannister forces to ride to him—doing his best to leave Cersei alone, undefended except by mercenaries, with two armies on the horizon that both wanted her dead—
“The queen won’t insist,” Tyrion said quietly.
“Why not?” Jaime said.
Tyrion took a deep breath. “Jaime…our odds aren’t looking very good.”
“You’ve got a Dothraki horde, three dragons—”
“We have two now,” Tyrion said. “And the Night King has one.” Jaime looked over at him in horror. “And the Dothraki horses are starting to die. They can’t dig out enough grass to live on from beneath the snow, and Cersei’s sinking too many of our grain shipments. We’ve got—a month, perhaps, and then they’re going to start melting away like morning dew. And once they’re dead…well, we’ll have to eat them very quickly. Or we’ll be facing an army of undead cavalry. Imagine what a charge could do to an infantry line if the horses would go straight onto the spears and not even stop.”
Jaime could imagine it without the least difficulty. “What are you going to do?”
Tyrion gave a shrug that was barely a twitch of his shoulders. “What can we do? We’re going to fight. As soon as we possibly can, before Cersei weakens us too much, and for as long as we can after that. We’ll destroy as many of them as we can manage, and try and burn our own fallen. But Bran Stark tells us the Long Night is coming. And chances are the dead will be marching on King’s Landing before we see the sun rise again.” He looked over. “Daenerys means it, you know,” he said. “She’d rather see Cersei on the Iron Throne than the Night King. Even if it means she and all of us who follow her are dead. A defense in the south might be the last chance for the survival of Westeros. If we can just hurt them badly enough, hold them long enough for the sun to come back, even if it’s still winter…but Cersei will need soldiers for that fight, not just mercenaries. Westerosi soldiers, fighting for their homes and their families. So…Daenerys won’t insist.” He looked down at his hands. “She’d send you back, in fact. Frankly, we…assumed you’d be there. Commanding the armies.”
“Well, you’re making me feel quite unwanted,” Jaime said, looking down. He heaved a breath. “Cersei wouldn’t have me back. I betrayed her to come.”
“She might change her mind if she knows what’s coming for her.”
“When she sees the army of the dead marching past Moat Cailin, maybe she’ll reconsider, if she hasn’t found a better soldier to fuck into loyalty by then.” Jaime grimaced. “Did that sound bitter? I think it did.” He took a healthy swallow.
“Do you really think she wouldn’t listen to you?” Tyrion said.
“She almost had the Mountain kill me. While she was objecting to my departure.”
Jaime didn’t say it again. “It doesn’t matter. She wouldn’t listen to me, even if she took me back. She’d ask me how many dead men I’d seen with my own eyes. She’d ask me how much of your force I’d seen fall. And if the answer wasn’t that I’d just escaped from the wreck of your total destruction, she’d tell me I was a fool too stupid to trust with her armies.”
Tyrion nodded a little. “Well, in that case,” he said, “you may as well stay and die with us instead. I hope I’m not bragging, but I do think we’re better company.” He held out his glass, and Jaime reached his over and clinked them together.
They were better company. Jaime spent the next six days in war councils, doing his best to advise on the deployment. “The Night King’s army is slow but steady on the march,” Snow said, touching the maps where the tokens were planted in a line going south from the spot that had until recently marked the location of Eastwatch and now, according to Brandon Stark, marked a very large hole in the Wall. “Their walking speed is maybe a quarter of a standard infantry unit, but they don’t have to stop. Not to sleep, not to eat, not to shit. They just keep going.”
“Except you actually want them to come quickly right now, while the horses are still holding out,” Jaime said. “All you need to do is get the Dothraki over the Last River and into the plains of the Gift, and you’ll cut them down like dry wheat.”
“That would be nice,” Tyrion muttered, running a hand down over his face.
After the councils, Jaime sat in the courtyard and watched Brienne training the new Stark recruits: every house in the North had sent every able-bodied young man they had to the army, and she was picking out the best of them to train up into a household guard and to man the walls in case of siege. Of course, ‘the best of them’ were the ones who swung their swords like they were threshing an angry field. The others just stood there or occasionally dropped their blades entirely. Watching Brienne’s dismayed and longsuffering expressions as they clumsily hacked at one another under her supervision was somehow delightful.
Then of course there was the wonderful moment when a handful of men came in who weren’t raw recruits, veterans of a battle or two somewhere, and tried to bluster about not being trained by a woman, which meant Jaime got to sit and watch, beatifically, while she dumped all five of them in the dirt together.
“You can be trained by a woman, or you can be beaten by a woman, your choice,” she said, standing over them.
“Or both, surely,” Jaime said, when she came by to get a drink of water from the barrel of snowmelt. “I’ve seen how you treat that poor squire I gave you.” She just sighed and gave him a speaking look before trudging back to beat the swordbelts off another half-dozen of her trainees.
When she was done, they went to eat together in the hall. Podrick sat with them, and Tyrion joined them if he wasn’t closeted with Daenerys. Some of the other men came as well, the better of her recruits, who weren’t too stupid to learn; she had already knocked a few dozen of them into shape. The ale was watered, the rations had already been cut to a single meal a day, and it was a tasteless grain porridge with fairly suspicious meat, and he didn’t mind in the slightest. They talked of drill, and tactics, and occasionally he and Tyrion would verbally spar a bit, or he’d tease Brienne by saying something outrageous for the pleasure of seeing her frown at him severely, and sometimes one of the men would talk of a home, a family. They weren’t miraculously noble and kind, but they were all more or less decent men, serving in a house where they were expected to be more or less decent men.
On the sixth day, Tyrion came out a little early and joined him in the courtyard. After ten minutes of idle banter, he gradually stopped talking. After a stretch of silence, Jaime turned his head and Tyrion was staring at him with a strange blank expression, and then he said, stifled, “Jaime—” and then stopped and looked as though something was clawing him.
Jaime looked back over—at where Brienne was dragging an arm across her forehead to wipe her sweaty hair back from her tired face, and saying, with enormous resignation, “All right, back to positions, try it again,” and he swallowed hard. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how he felt, how she felt; it wasn’t that he hadn’t thought more than once about—the other life, the better world, in which she could have been his and he could have been hers. Only he’d never said a word about it out loud, to anyone.
“Father would even have approved, wouldn’t he,” he said, a little threadily, after a moment.
Tyrion had turned to look at Brienne again with an almost bewildered expression, as if he didn’t understand, but when he looked back at Jaime, his face crumpled in on itself a moment before he answered. “If you’d shown up at Casterly Rock any time in the last ten years with a dismissal from the Kingsguard and the heiress of Tarth on your arm, Father would probably have discovered religion and offered gratitude to the Seven,” he said, a wavering effort.
“It would have been rather miraculous, given—everything,” Jaime said.
“Jaime,” Tyrion said again, his voice cracking.
“Don’t,” Jaime said. “Don’t.” He looked away. This wasn’t that better world. This was the world where she was going to die fighting an army of the dead, and the only grace of it was he was going to die with her, even though he wasn’t hers; even though he’d given himself to another woman, in dishonor, and wasn’t free.
Tyrion was sitting hunched next to him, pulled in on himself with sorrow, and Jaime couldn’t look at him, not and stop himself from doing something useless and wretched like falling at Brienne’s feet and begging her for what he had no right to ask and couldn’t return in kind. He knew he’d made the wrong choice, but the only thing he’d had, all these years, was that he’d held to it. He’d cleaved to the woman he’d given himself to, though all the world had stood between them, and he hadn’t abandoned her—not for lust, not for greed, not for pride and not even to save his own soul, and even now—
Even now, even though he knew Brienne wanted him. He’d seen the flush in her cheek when he’d brushed against her by accident; he’d seen her look away from his face in embarrassment when desire had pricked her. Women had always wanted him, and it had always perversely left him cold; he’d preferred Cersei’s demands, her disdain, her certainty that any man who got to touch her was luckier than he deserved to be. But Brienne’s mortified lust fired him; he wanted to give her what she wanted of him, anything she wanted of him.
But she wouldn’t say yes to what he had to offer her if he didn’t lie about it. If he offered her all the pleasure of satisfying her body, hours of sweaty intoxication in his arms; if he offered her his name, marriage, all the honors of the world; she still wouldn’t say yes if it came with an exception, with a carved-out space in the middle of his heart. And he could lie to her, without even trying; he could trick her into his bed by simply asking, because she’d trust him to mean it if he did; but she wouldn’t want to be there in the first place.
So as she came over, he forced himself to look away from Tyrion and throw her a smirk. “Do you know, I think it’s just barely possible that the one on the left might hit something he aimed at, if you give him another—six months?”
“Would you like to try?” she said sourly. “Maybe they’re right and it takes a cock to train soldiers.”
“In my admittedly limited experience, what it takes is a deep and abiding fear of your drillmaster,” Tyrion said. “I think you’re doing just fine.” He was still staring at Brienne’s face as if she was a puzzle he didn’t understand how to solve. But he looked away as Arya Stark came out of the main keep, glancing around, and came straight for him.
“We have a problem,” she said flatly. “Bran’s seen something. The Night King has sent a division under one of the White Walkers through the mountains.”
Tyrion stiffened, and Jaime drew a sharp breath. “They’re going to come down and flank you right here at Winterfell,” he said.
“Undoubtedly,” Tyrion said. He looked up at Arya. “How many troops has he peeled off the main force for this?”
“None,” Arya said. “He’s raised them all in the Gift. Lots of old bodies there.”
Tyrion ran a hand over his face. “The Dothraki can’t do shit in a mountain pass, and we’re going to need the Unsullied and every last man of the Northern army besides to hold the line before Last Hearth. We have to keep them caught between the plains and the Last River…”
“How far into the mountains are they?” Brienne asked intently, and Jaime flinched, turning to look at her. There wasn’t any fear in her face at all, only determination, and Arya looked at her a long moment, then said, “He saw them just entering the foothills.”
Brienne nodded. She looked at Tyrion. “I’ve been in those mountains—I took Sansa that way to avoid Bolton troops on our way to Castle Black. There are a dozen choke points through the passes, places not wider than five abreast. With thirty of the men I’ve trained, I could hold them off for weeks. Maybe even months.”
Tyrion didn’t look over at him, but Jaime felt him not looking. His own breath wouldn’t come. He’d known, he’d known it was coming, but—not this soon, not today—Tyrion said, low, “We—probably won’t be able to resupply you. Or reinforce you.”
“We’re here to protect Winterfell,” Brienne said. “And that’s what we’ll be doing.” She looked at Arya. “If Lady Sansa gives her leave, we’ll go in the morning.”
“I’m going with you,” Jaime said, without knowing he was going to speak, but even as she looked over at him, startled, the relief of it was settling into him: he could breathe again. “The Dothraki don’t need my help. And one more decent sword in those passes will be worth more than one on the plain.” He smiled up at her. “I can cover your left side.”
She didn’t smile back, but after a moment, she nodded. Next to him, Tyrion folded his lips together and looked away, his hands clenched, as if he was holding in all the things that didn’t make any sense to say. He came to Jaime’s room after dinner that night, though, and stood in the doorway watching him look over his gear: Brienne had taken him to pick over the nearly emptied stores for warmer clothing, a few spare pairs of socks, ice spikes for his boots. “You know you don’t have to do this. And most likely shouldn’t.”
“Are you still imagining I’m going to ride back south and lead the last stand of the Lannister armies against the dead?” Jaime said.
“At the moment, I’m imagining you hacked to pieces in an obscure mountain pass by a company the Night King considers so insignificant he won’t even bother bringing them to the real fight,” Tyrion said.
“They wouldn’t be quite so insignificant by the time they hit you on your flank with every man, woman, and child in Winterfell standing among them,” Jaime said.
“You’re an experienced field commander,” Tyrion said. “We could use your advice—”
“You don’t need me,” Jaime said.
“She doesn’t need you! You’re too old and you’ve lost a hand!” Jaime turned and stared with all the outrage he could command. Tyrion wouldn’t meet his eyes, looking away with his hands clenched, but after a moment, he said, low, “You’re all going to die up there. If you do succeed, if you do hold off the flanking force, at most it’ll be for a month. And then your supplies will run out, you’re all going to start starving, and you’ll be overrun before we can possibly get any help to you. We could actually win in the Gift. We have a chance. You’ve seen the Dothraki fight. They can carve us a path to the Night King, and if we kill him, we win. It’s his power holding all of them to life—”
“And if you do win there, if your army’s not destroyed,” Jaime said, “you’re going to turn round and ride south to kill Cersei. I know,” he added sharply, as Tyrion drew a breath to speak. “She considers me a traitor, I’ve bent the knee to Daenerys, all of it, I know. But I didn’t come here to betray her. I came here to fight the dead.”
“You still love her,” Tyrion said. “After everything she’s done—”
“After everything,” Jaime said. “Yes. I can’t—I don’t know how to stop. I’ve never known how.” He smiled a little, a hard jerk of his mouth. “Olenna told me—it had gone beyond my power to control. And I suppose it has.”
“Is that why you’re going up there?” Tyrion looked at him almost accusingly. “You want to die, so if we do somehow survive this, you don’t have to face her? Confront what she’s become?”
“I know what she’s become far better than you do!” Jaime stopped and breathed and then he said softly. “Don’t ask me to sit here while one woman I love dies in that mountain pass, just so I can survive to watch you kill the other one.”
Tyrion twisted away like a man jerking away from a knife. After a moment he said, stifled, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Jaime said.
“I don’t really think it will be,” Tyrion said.
The fighting was—endless. The shield was bound to his right arm, burn in his shoulder from keeping it in place, overlapped with his neighbors, and his sword stabbed over the top, slashed down at the cracks where the clawing hands scrabbled through, Valyrian steel piercing the bodies of the dead and dropping them into dry bones. More of them pressed in after. There wasn’t even a glimpse of an end to the force. He only kept fighting as long as he could, and then he fought a little longer, and then he just kept fighting until someone touched his shoulder and changed places to send him to the back, to stagger over to a bedroll still warm and fall down to sleep, until someone else shook him awake and sent him to go and eat, a cup of soup and barley and cabbage, and then he washed a little and honed his sword, tightened and fixed the leather on his shield, and then whittled shafts for dragonglass spears and arrows until it was time for him to wake the next man and then go back to the front lines.
They fought for three days, and by then they’d backed down the whole length of the narrow place, choking it with so many corpses that the flow stopped for a while: a few wights kept coming, climbing over the top of the mound of bones, but it was easy to kill them one at a time. But just past the camp, the trail widened again, leading into a valley big enough for them to be surrounded.
Brienne said. “We’ve held them here for three days, and they’ll be another one or two digging out. Everyone eat something, then break camp. We’ll fall back to the next narrow point.” Jaime took a deep breath and got himself up. They trudged several miles back the way they’d come, handfuls of wights harrying their heels. One night, one of the men died of wound-fever in his sleep and got up and killed two more before they cut him apart.
They made their next camp a little closer to the choke point, put up a pair of archer platforms, and changed the hours: a shorter shift fighting, then a shift of camp work, then a second shift, then sleep; it was a little easier. They had a single day to prepare and rest, then the dead were on them.
The sun kept growing weaker. The fifth day of fighting at the second choke point, it never rose at all. They didn’t see it again; the sky only brightened a little for a few hours each day, a false promise of dawn, and sank back into dark. It was as if time had just stopped, and they were trapped in the lowest of the seven unending hells the septons had always talked about. Jaime had always scoffed, but he had to admit, he didn’t like it at all. Terrible scenery—barren walls of rock close as a castle passageway around them, snow and more snow packed to ice underfoot. They didn’t even see stars.
That second choke point was longer than the first; they were there for six more days, they thought, before at last the trail broadened at their heels, and Brienne ordered the next withdrawal. The trail climbed for a little while from there. Jaime stopped at the crest; Brienne was standing there, and he turned and stood with her looking back down into the long twisting mile of canyon, carpeted with bones up to the heaped mound at the very end. There were some wights clambering along over the top of the mass, and at the back where it turned around the last bend and went out of sight, there was a single tall white figure standing, and the dead were dragging bones away, digging out the pass. The figure turned abruptly towards them, blue eyes burning so brightly Jaime could see them like lanterns in the dark, and stood looking back at them, implacable, its face blank.
“How many do you think it took to fill that pass?” Brienne asked him, low.
He’d seen a thousand bodies burned to bones once, after the battle of the Whispering Woods, and the trench they’d dug to bury them. It hadn’t been close. “Five thousand?” he said. “Maybe more.”
“But they’re still coming,” Brienne said. “Surely they’d give up at some point.”
“I suppose they don’t care if they lose the entire force,” Jaime said after a moment. “All they need is for one White Walker to come out in the forest and find a handful of villagers to slaughter, and he’ll build it right back up. We’re going to have to kill all of them to stop them.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “I suppose that’s what we’ll have to do, then,” she said, her chin coming up, and he had to clench his jaw and look down to stop himself from reaching for her, for her hand, pulling her around to kiss her. He was tired enough to weep, arms and shoulders and legs aching-hot with pain; he’d been fighting for almost three weeks without end after a week’s forced march; he was a man of forty and three who was used to featherbeds and silk sheets, and if he touched her, if she let him take her in his arms, he wouldn’t let her go again until there was a wight about to claw his face away. He wanted the taste of her mouth; he wanted her body against his, the warm naked length of her; he wanted to put his cock into her, watch her eyes widen and her lips move as he took her, hear the sounds she made; wanted to sleep beside her, wake beside her, just once. Just once, every day, for the rest of his days. It wasn’t too much to ask of the gods, surely? They didn’t seem likely to be many in number.
He didn’t reach out. She was already moving, anyway, turning to march onward down the trail. The next narrowing was six miles away. They had to reach it before they could rest.
This stretch was wider, but there was a thick growth of scrub brush buried and dying under the snow and ice, and they had time. They chopped all the brush they could pull up into pieces, then dug out one stretch of the pass down to the bare rock and made a bed of kindling and sticks. When the dead finally came, two days later, they lit the pyre and burned a hundred thrashing silent wights all together. They had a sack of dragonglass shards by then, too: arrowheads that had broken while being tied on, bits that had come off spear points—the stuff chipped if you looked at it wrong—and they scattered them over the ground, so half the first rush after that collapsed in a wave as they pierced their own flesh on the sharp pieces.
But then it was another four days of hard fighting, bitter work: they were all starting to tire, to wear down under little sleep and fewer provisions. More men stumbled, flagged; the dead clawed them. The second day, they dragged a man down and swamped him too quickly to be pulled back, some young Northman who’d come off a pig farm and picked up a sword not six months before. He came back at them in the next wave, eyes blank and blue, and Jaime had to slam his cousin sideways and take the poor bastard’s head off himself. That night, when he went to his bedroll, the men on camp duty were boring holes in the base of a handful of arrowheads, so they could all wear one on a string around their throats, to stab themselves with at need. Even so, another two men fell and were thrown back at them the next day.
Brienne called the withdrawal the instant they managed to slow the tide to a safe pace. They needed the rest, badly, and more of it than they were going to get. They needed more food, too; they needed a decently warm shelter, and they weren’t going to get that either. What they had instead was the nine-mile march to the next point, a high stretch of sheer-walled canyon between two massive peaks, and after that the single day it would take for the dead to reach them. Brienne sent the two most sure-footed young men to look for archer platforms on both sides, and then she had the others put up the tents they hadn’t bothered with, since the fighting had started. She threw a second sack of the scant dried meat and peas into the cooking pot. Jaime watched her do it, and wished he was dull enough with fatigue not to understand, or stupid enough to find a reason to argue with her. But she was right. This would be the end.
It was a good place to fight: the canyon went nearly three miles, and it was the only way between the two jagged peaks. Even if there was a goat trail or two somewhere up there, it wasn’t going to be something the lurching dead could navigate. The canyon was narrow enough they’d have only three abreast, meaning more time to rest, and fewer to come at them. The next choke point wasn’t for twelve miles, and it wasn’t nearly as good. She was right to spend the last of their strength here. If they didn’t destroy the force here, they wouldn’t destroy them anywhere. They probably weren’t going to destroy them. He thought they must have killed—nearly ten thousand by now. It seemed unreal. How many could the Night King have, that he’d throw away ten thousand just for a side expedition?
Jaime crawled into a tent, when someone nudged him towards one: they’d already put out his bedroll inside. He was too old, and he’d lost a hand, but he was still better than farmhands and wheelwrights with a few months of training. He would’ve expected that they’d resent him for it—fancy rich southerner with his golden hand, swanning among them. Instead they’d handed him their bowls with another swallow or two of soup left, and moved his bedroll closer to the small fires, and let him sleep a little longer—though surely they understood, they knew, that they’d be cut down before he was. He’d be the last to go, except Brienne herself, a selfish relief there: he’d die taking a blow meant for her left side. And he’d be glad to. He supposed they felt the same way: they all had someone back in Winterfell, and they would be glad to keep his sword between the dead and the ones they loved for just a little longer, even if it meant they’d fall first.
He’d heaved himself onto the bedroll and his eyes were already closing when the flap lifted, and Brienne ducked inside. He pushed up on his elbow, his stomach tightening. She’d shared a tent with Podrick, on the march, and Podrick was still alive. He’d probably be the third or fourth left from the end—he hadn’t actually managed to spend three years following Brienne around without having a little skill beaten into him. The blacksmith was his main competition: a big strong lad who’d keep his shield up until the end of days, most likely—Oh, Seven, was she going to kiss him? His mouth was dry as rattling bones.
She didn’t kiss him. She folded herself down on the other bedroll, awkward in the small space, and without looking at him, she said, very softly, “Your brother spoke with me, the night before we left,” and she raised her head and looked at him.
“Brienne,” he said, his voice like a single thread picked out of whole cloth.
She didn’t spare him. “This isn’t their army,” she said. “This is the force they’re throwing away to flank the Dothraki on the plain. And we haven’t reached the end of them. Even if our armies win, down in the Gift—they’ll have heavy losses. And this force is going to come down out of the mountains behind them, despite all that we can do.”
He tried, desperate. “We just have to—”
“Jaime,” she said, low, and stopped him. “You have to go. As soon as you wake. We’ll give you as much time as we can. Take word to Winterfell, so they can bring as many inside the walls as possible. And then—you have to go south.”
“I am not some sort of infallible military commander,” Jaime said, through his teeth. “Robb Stark beat the shit out of me—”
“Robb Stark is dead,” Brienne said flatly. “Where would you try to meet them?”
He clenched his jaw. “At the Bite, of course! The marshland will slow them down. We could drench the place in wildfire, pull up every barrel of the stuff hidden beneath King’s Landing; put the Iron Fleet on either side to bombard them if they go near the coast, fight them at Greywater Watch, fight them at the Twins—it’s obvious, do you understand me? Any fool could figure it out—”
“But you’re the only one of them that Cersei will listen to in time to get her soldiers there,” Brienne said. “She has to stop sinking our supply ships; they’ll be her supply ships in another month. She has to get the Iron Fleet to Dragonstone for loads of dragonglass and start shipping her men north instead. Because otherwise, the dead are going to overrun what’s left of our forces at Moat Cailin, and pour down through the empty Riverlands, where there’s not even a ruling lord left, and once they’re past the crossroads—there won’t be any stopping them. Jaime. You have to go. You’ve seen them. You know how to fight them. You know how they have to be fought—”
“Come with me,” he said, convulsive. He knew—he knew it was—he didn’t need her to answer him; he didn’t even need to see her face, the bending sorrow of it; he knew before the words even came out. He had to say them anyway; he had to beg for her life, and she was the only one he could beg. He saw it vividly, all of a sudden, as clear as if he’d suddenly been struck by visions himself: the Riverlands wind on his cheek and the restive horse beneath him; the gleaming ranks of Lannister shields lined up, spears tipped with dragonglass; the army of the dead lumbering towards them, eyes shining blue—and her face, in the front ranks, gone blank and empty, with the blow that had killed her carved out of her left side. “Come with me, you’ve been leading this—you know how to—”
She was reaching out to him; she was touching him, the dry callused press of her fingers on his cracked lips, and he shut his eyes as the tears spilled out from under the lids, startlingly hot on his cheeks, and then he leaned in and caught her head with his hand and kissed her.
Her hands gripped his head, tight, and she kissed him back, almost savagely, going at his mouth clumsy and wild, and he was wrestling with her armor, her belt; he bent down to use his teeth to help, because he didn’t have the other hand to do it with, but she was helping too; she was shoving it all down, baring her thighs, and her hand was on his head and he buried his face between her legs and tasted her while she gasped and pushed him down harder onto her. He fucked her with his thumb while he licked and sucked her wet, and then he sat up and climbed over her hips and she attacked his belt, jerked it open, the two of them working together to get his breeches open, shoved down.
She grabbed his ass and pulled him forward onto her and he thrust into her, a feverish blind rutting, her legs wrapping around him and her arms hooked under his arms and gripping his shoulders, urging him on, utterly unnecessary and utterly perfect; he was kissing her mouth, her chin, her throat, nosing more devouring kisses over her face as he fucked her, and she was gasping, small fragile noises deep in her throat, and he couldn’t bear it, he couldn’t bear it; like watching the blade come down on his hand, only slowly, with no one keeping him in place, and having to just hold still and let them saw it off at tender agonizing length.
Afterwards she was panting under him, naked and sweating, her eyes shut; he’d pillowed his head against her breast, and he could hear her heart beating, still quickened, and if he fell asleep, he’d have to wake; and when he woke, he’d have to go, so he was fighting sleep, desperately, but the drowning waves were coming. He was so tired, and she was going heavy and soft with sleep herself, her hand sliding from his head as it went limp, and then he was awake again, still in the dark, but it was the dark of the next day, and outside the tent Podrick was saying softly, “My lady?”
She drew a breath, and said, “I’m coming,” her voice furred and thick with sleep, and Jaime kissed her again and once again after that, and then she stopped him and reached for her armor. He helped her put it back on, as best he could; she helped him with his. Then they climbed out of the tent and Podrick was waiting, tensely, with Mardey, one of the scouts she’d sent up looking for platforms.
“I—I found a way up high, m’lady, and I—” The boy stopped and then said, “I think you should come see, m’lady.”
Jaime followed her up the narrow track after Mardey pointed it out; it wasn’t easy, in armor and particularly with only one hand, but they managed to scale it. There was a narrow space at the top, more or less flat, with a jutting spire cracked down the middle. They crept up and looked down through the fissure and saw the whole length of the pass, running back to the very foothills. The thin clouds were backlit with moonlight, and the snow caught the milky light.
The leading edge of the dead was perhaps another hour from their position. The mass of wights stretched out from there down the length of the entire rest of the mountain range and all the way to the hills, endless, ants swarming over some piece of honeyed fruit a careless servant had left lying on the floor. They had swelled out to cram every widened valley full, and they choked every narrow trail lacing one to the other. It made the Dothraki horde he’d seen from the dragon’s back look like a joke, trying to stop an incoming tide with a castle built of sand. There were a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand—
Brienne was staring out at them stricken, and she said, “How—how—” and then he saw it, not quite halfway along the range, coming down from above: the vast terrible shadow of dragon wings. It descended with wisps of cloud trailing off its belly, blue fire shining from underneath its scales. The beast swept along the line of the army, directly towards them, and they hunched down instinctively, uselessly, until it pulled up and came crashing down in a valley just below their hiding-place. On its back sat a White Walker, his head shorn close, with the glinting circlet of a crown around it.
“But if the Night King is here,” Brienne said blankly, “then what army is in the Gift?” and Jaime was shaking suddenly, in horror and understanding—Tyrion holding out a cup of soured wine, grains of barley in an empty storeroom, she just wants us to starve and die while we’re doing it—
“I’m going to kill him,” he whispered, and Brienne looked around at him, in confusion. “I’m going to kill him, the filthy treacherous—I could—I’m going to kill him,” his voice rising to a snarl, rage tangling his words. Brienne was staring at him. He pointed out at the army. “There isn’t one! That’s it, that’s the whole fucking army! Because the Night King didn’t march along the eastern coast to meet the Dothraki on open ground, so they could conveniently harvest his troops like a field of ripe and ready wheat. He’s brought them through the mountains instead, which is why your army is waiting at Moat Cailin, and all of it—the empty storerooms, the sad fucking tale of starving horses, not being able to spare a single man to reinforce you or so much as another sack of grain—it’s all a lie, do you understand? It’s all a lie that my fucking brother is telling just so that I’ll go back to Cersei and make her stop sinking your supply ships!”
He was roaring, fury straining the fibers of his chest over his ribs, his lungs trying to burst out through, as if he had to swell to hold in the rage. He wanted to claw the whole world to pieces, the whole world, and Brienne wasn’t saying anything, and he shut his eyes and spat out, “Did you know?”
She still didn’t say anything, and he opened his eyes and found her still staring at him, hard and unmoving, and a wave of shame and new anger swamped him; Tyrion had done that to him, too, he’d made him think, even for an instant— “I’m sorry. I know you didn’t,” but she was still staring at him that same way, her mouth a fixed, set line, and he swallowed. “Brienne,” he said, his voice cracking, trying to find apology—
“Jaime Lannister,” she said, very level, “look there and tell me what you see.”
She pointed at the pass. He stared at her, wondering what she didn’t understand. “It’s the army of the dead!” he said. “The entire fucking army of the dead—”
“Look at it,” Brienne said.
He turned his head and looked, but he was right, it was the entire army, funneling through the mountains—a hundred, two hundred thousand strong, maybe more. Here and there, amid the ranks, a White Walker standing out mounted on some beast; directly below them, the Night King himself, standing beside his dragon and surveying his forces—the whole vast terrible crawling tide of them, a wave of darkness coming to drown the whole world—and Jaime managed, a ragged protest, “Brienne, he sent you here—Tyrion sent you all here—to die, just to convince me—”
“He sent me here to fight the dead,” Brienne said. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m grateful he didn’t ask me to lie, I’m not good at it. But if he’d asked me to, to help save our army from your sister, I would have.”
It was like being turned over with the stopper pulled out, everything running out of him: rage, righteous anger. He saw Tyrion’s face in the courtyard, the moment when he’d understood why it was Jaime had come north on a few words he’d said to an ugly woman, the woman Tyrion knew he trusted but hadn’t imagined he’d love; in the doorway of his bedchamber, the look as if someone had been dragging a knife through his bowels. Don’t ask me to sit here while one woman I love dies in that mountain pass, just so I can survive to watch you kill the other one, he’d said, except that was exactly what Tyrion needed to do; that was what Daenerys needed Tyrion to do to him, because—because—
“I can’t lie to Cersei,” Jaime said, his voice cracking. “Brienne. It’s not that I won’t; I can’t. She’ll know. I’ve never been able to—she’s always known. She could lie to me, but I could never—she’ll look at me and she’ll know, that’s why Tyrion had to—” He stopped, and shut his eyes.
And after a moment, like benediction, Brienne’s hand came curling gently over his neck, the leather warm over his wind-chilled skin, her forehead against his. “I understand,” she said, softly. He put his arms around her, holding on. She leaned in and kissed him, sweet and hard, and then she said, “You still have to go.”
He tried to pull away, but she held him; she said, terrible and implacable, “You have to go back to Tyrion and tell him the lie didn’t work.”
“Anyone can go!” he said. “He probably doesn’t even need anyone to go; he’s got the Stark boy with his visions, watching us, he’ll know it hasn’t worked, he’ll send reinforcements—it makes sense to fight them in the passes, he’ll have more men to us by tomorrow—”
“You still have to go,” Brienne said, “because you have to live, and wait until it’s true. They’re going to make it through this pass. We can’t hold that army forever. And if we’re losing at Moat Cailin—”
“No,” he said, his voice cracking.
“If we’re losing at Moat Cailin,” Brienne went on, relentlessly, “you’ll still have to—”
He gave a gasp of agony, a shudder, and then she was pulling him down with her to crouch against the stone as the dragon went leaping by overhead, a horribly silent shadow: it was flying north again, to guard the rear of the army. It was riderless. In the valley beneath them, the Night King had seated himself in a throne that had reared itself up out of the ice for him, translucent as crystal, with four White Walkers around him.
Brienne stayed clutching at his shoulder and chest a few more moments, looking after the dragon, breathing hard. But then she turned her head, and he followed her eyes to the slope, a long and treacherous curving slope heaped with snow, that snaked all the way down from the ledge where they stood and emptied directly into the valley where the Night King now sat.
“You can’t,” he said. “Brienne, there’s no chance, it’s useless—”
“We need to get back to the camp,” Brienne said, but she wasn’t agreeing; she had already let go and turned away from him. She was going, quickly, down the narrow scrambling graveled trail back to the camp. He followed her down and stood watching her speak with Podrick: she was telling him she needed him to hold the pass until relief came. He looked stupid and young; he was barely older than Jaime had been, when he’d joined the Kingsguard. His jaw pushed out and afraid, but he was nodding, keeping his shoulders back, trying to be brave, because that’s what she was asking of him.
Jaime turned and looked into the tents until he found Brienne’s pack. She’d brought pen and a few scraps of paper, to send a message if needed. He took them and wrote, Cersei, by the time you read this I’ll be dead, and then he wrote everything he could think of about the army of the dead: the size of it, how the wights moved, their speed, the easiest ways to hit them; the numbers of White Walkers, the dragon of ice; he told her how to meet them at the Bite, a quick diagram of troop positions around the marshes; he drew another sketch for her to give Qyburn, of a scorpion bolt with a flattened head of steel to pierce the tight scales, and dragonglass shards on the barbs to kill, and one more showing the angle to fire it, and where to aim, at the joining of neck and chest where the scales lifted as a dragon turned; he wrote it all down, and all of it was true, and then he stopped, and breathed deep, and wrote, We have a chance at the Night King, even if it’s a ridiculously small one, and I have to take it. I don’t see any other way we can stop this army. I’ll see this gets to Tyrion, and demand he send it on to you, in repayment of the debt he owes me for freeing him after his trial. Know that I love you, and my sword will stand between you and the dead as long as I live, and none of it was a lie, but he felt like a liar anyway.
But he sealed it with wax, and he cut his thumb and pressed a bloody fingerprint across the fold too, and took it outside. “Mardey,” Jaime said, beckoning the young man over. “You’ve rested and eaten? Good. You need to go, now, right away, and get this back to Winterfell. Give it to my brother, and tell him to send it to Cersei, unopened. Will you remember that?” Mardey nodded, staring up at him wide-eyed, and Jaime gave him a nod back. “Take some of the dried meat and go. With any luck, you’ll meet a company coming to relieve us.”
He stood at the end of the camp watching the boy disappearing quickly around the next corner down. There was another glimpse of his head a few turnings later; then he was gone.
Jaime turned back to the center of the camp. Brienne was sitting by the fire so Podrick could fix the straps on her armor. She looked up at him with a question in her eyes, and it hurt to answer, but he could do it; she’d trusted him, and he wasn’t going to make her wrong. “Podrick, look at mine when you’re done, will you,” he said, and took a cup of the soup before he sat down beside her.
So he was still there beside her, to parry the blow the White Walker aimed for her left side; he was there, and he knocked the blade aside and took its head off on the backswing, so it didn’t kill her. Instead with a yell, she drove Oathkeeper up and into the Night King’s chest, straight into the heart, and as the ice blade tumbled out of his opening hand, the White Walkers were all shrieking, writhing as if the blade had struck all of them, too, and one after another they shattered into clouds of ice, crumbling into the snow.
Jaime stood gasping among their wreck, and then he turned and looked over the cliff’s edge. Along the entire length of the pass, from one end to the other, the dead were collapsing, like watching a child’s house built of twigs come down, rag and bone and rusted steel all that was left behind. There were faint wild cheers carrying on the wind from their camp, and he shut his eyes and slid to his knees on a sobbing breath. The dead were gone. The dead were gone, and Cersei was dead too; he’d signed her death warrant with his own blood and sent it to her. It wouldn’t make a difference now; Tyrion wouldn’t have to send it. But he’d had to write it.
Brienne put her arms around him and held him, kissed his brow, and he buried his face against her and wept for his sister, his beautiful beloved sister, his lover, his queen, who was going to die alone, without him.